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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Is It Really Racism? The Origins of White Americans' Opposition to Race-Targeted Policies


We address the role of racial antagonism in whites’ opposition to racially-targeted policies. The data come from four surveys selected for their unusually rich measurement of both policy preferences and other racial attitudes: the 1986 and 1992 National Election Studies, the 1994 General Social Survey, and the 1995 Los Angeles County Social Survey. They indicate that such opposition is more strongly rooted in racial antagonism than in non-racial conservatism, that whites tend to respond to quite different racial policies in similar fashion, that racial attitudes affect evaluations of black and ethnocentric white presidential candidates, and that their effects are just as strong among college graduates as among those with no college education. Second, we present evidence that symbolic racism is consistently more powerful than older forms of racial antagonism, and its greater strength does not diminish with controls on non-racial ideology, partisanship, and values. The origins of symbolic racism lie partly in both anti-black antagonism and non-racial conservative attitudes and values, and so mediates their effects on policy preferences, but it explains substantial additional variance by itself, suggesting that it does represent a new form of racism independent of older racial and political attitudes. The findings are each replicated several times with different measures, in different surveys conducted at different times. We also provide new evidence in response to earlier critiques of research on symbolic racism.

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